In his book Augustine on the Christian Life (Crossway, 2015), Gerald Bray examines the life and times of the man most historians regard as the “father” of the Western church. While Augustine rightly garners a reputation for sound theological teaching, Bray points to something that perhaps most students of history never consider: “Augustine was one of the few people in antiquity who wrote at great length about himself.” (30) His Confessions, for example, is intimately autobiographical. This penchant for self-disclosure also made Augustine a model pastor and preacher; he was so much more than simply a theological mind. Nowhere is this more evident than in his On Christian Doctrine, begun shortly before the Confessions sometime in the mid-390s. Augustine spent half his life as a teacher of literature and public speaking successively at Carthage, Rome, and Milan before assuming the bishopric at Hippo. Therefore, as a Christian, he was an ideal teacher of Christian homiletics. The following are 3 lessons of homiletics Augustine wished to convey to Christian preachers…
- Eloquence is Elucidation
As a former teacher of rhetoric, Augustine was certainly not opposed to oratorical skill and strategy. However, Augustine believed that eloquent speech should have a purpose: “In a word, the function of eloquence in teaching is not to make people like what was once offensive, or to make them do what they were loth to do, but to make clear what was hidden from them.” Eloquence is elucidation. In other words, careful language shouldn’t seek to coat the truth, but to clearly present it, as to “implant” it in the mind. This is, after all, the very purpose of Christian homiletics for Augustine: redemption. “Eloquent speakers give pleasure, wise ones salvation.” It should therefore be the preacher’s aim to ensure that his sermon contained “the greatest possible clarity” for the hearer. After all, eternity is at stake.
- Preaching is Teaching
For Augustine, “instruction is a matter of necessity.” First and foremost, preaching is teaching. When this is lost, Augustine avers, the church is destined to replicate the scene of ignorance described by Jeremiah: “Fearful and terrible things have happened in the land. The prophets were prophesying iniquity and the priests have given applause with their hands and my people have loved it so.” (Jer. 5:30-31) May “such madness” be far from us, declares the bishop of Hippo. For Augustine, the Christian preacher should aim that every sermon “ be listened to with understanding, with pleasure, and with obedience.” Without the first two, the third is an impossibility. Due to his abiding belief that Scriptural education is paramount for the office of pastor, Augustine can state plainly, “better than either is the person who not only quotes scripture when he chooses but also understands it as he should.”
- Impart Wisdom, Not Words.
Like Plato, Augustine had little patience or sympathy for the sophists of his day. For the Christian preacher, words are tools and not trophies. “It is the nature of good minds to love truth in the form of words, not the words themselves. What use is a golden key, if it cannot unlock what we want to be unlocked, and what is wrong with a wooden one, if it can, since our sole aim is to open closed doors?” Augustine’s brilliant illustrations for Christian homiletics give a strong sense of his priority for understanding above showmanship. Like so many pastors today, ancient preachers were faced with the temptation to look knowledgeable without actually imparting knowledge. Instead of using clear language in the pursuit of understanding, many place importance in wordiness or obscure vocabulary unintelligible to the common man. “What is the use of correct speech if it does not meet with the listener’s understanding? There is no point in speaking at all if our words are not understood by the people to whose understanding our words are directed.”